AMATEUR ASTRONOMER JIM WHITE, FROM TROUT LAKE GIVES A MONTHLY GUIDELINE ON VIEWING OUR SKY...
What’s in the Sky
Welcome to March, the month when spring begins, we set our clocks ahead, and this year have the treat of a close conjunction of two planets. Nights are shorter, but days should be warming as the seasons progress. March is truly a transitional month.
Hopefully some of you were able to see the “green comet”, also known as ZTF (discovered in 2022 by the Zwicky Transitory Facility at Mt. Palomar). I was able to see it several times, and was able to detect the green color in a telescope. I was lucky enough to get a couple of clear (and cold) nights. The Goldendale Observatory treated visitors to views several times, and I was able to share the view with a few friends here in Trout Lake. It was pretty faint, not very visible to the naked eye, and a fuzzy “star” in binoculars. Hopefully we’ll get another bright comet this year.
March starts off with a close conjunction between Jupiter and Venus, low in the west after sunset. The two planets will be separated in our sky by about ½ of a degree, which is about the width of the Moon as we see it in the sky. It should be a great view in binoculars or a telescope if skies are clear. Even though they appear close together in our skies, that is not the case by far. Venus will be about 127 million miles distant, while Jupiter will be over 537 million miles away. Our solar system is enormous when you think about it. Our Moon averages about 238,000 miles distant, and we all know how difficult it is to get there. Venus on March 1 will be some 500 times as far away, and Jupiter will be over two thousand times as far as the Moon. A long way!
Remember to set your clocks ahead (“spring ahead”) on March 12, when we shift to daylight savings time. Only 2 US States do not make the change, Arizona and Hawaii. Some states, including Washington, have passed laws to change to permanent DST, but congress must act to make it happen.
Spring begins on March 20, the vernal equinox. On that day, day length and night length are roughly equal. The Sun will rise at about 7:09am, and will set at about 7:18pm. Day length is slightly longer than day length thanks to our atmosphere. Light rays from the Sun are refracted, or bent, by our atmosphere, particularly near the horizon. That means we “see” the Sun slightly before it rises, and until slightly after it has set.
Other than Venus and Jupiter low in the west, the only other planet that is visible to the naked eye in March’s evening sky is Mars. The red planet is located high overhead, in the constellations Taurus and Gemini. It is growing fainter as it pulls away from us, but still has that distinctive red hue. The Moon can help you locate Mars on March 27, with the first-quarter Moon will be just to the right of Mars.
If you have binoculars, check out the night skies on a clear night. Hopefully it will be a bit warmer than in January! Find the “sword” in the belt of Orion, and train your binoculars on it. If you see a fuzzy area, you are looking at the Orion Nebula, an enormous cloud of mostly hydrogen gas, an area of star formation. Look to the right (west), and find a bright little cluster of stars, the Pleiades, or “Seven Sisters”. Between the Pleiades and Orion, find the bright orange supergiant star Aldebaran. This huge star has a diameter 44 times that of our Sun. Just below Aldebaran find a loose cluster of bright stars, called the Hyades, another cluster of young stars, like the Pleiades. A small telescope will work even better, but it is amazing what you can see with a simple pair of binoculars, and they are easy to use. Give it a try and enjoy the skies of March!
What’s in the Sky
Welcome to February, our shortest month of the year. With the progression of the seasons, we are starting to see longer days and shorter nights – in February, we’ll see a gain of some 79 minutes of daylight from the 1st to the 28th .
Many of you may have heard about a relatively bright comet, that will be closest to Earth in early February, and will be faintly visible in the night sky. The comet was discovered last year by a telescope at Mt. Palomar, called the Zwicky Transient Facility, or ZTF. News reports have called it the “Green Comet” as photographs do show a green hue to the comet. It may be faintly visible high overhead, between the north star, Polaris, and the bright star Capella. I managed to see it on January 20, low in the north, barely visible with binoculars. It may be easier to see in early February, as it will be higher in the sky. However, the bright, almost full Moon may wash it out somewhat. If there are clear skies, scan the skies to the left of Polaris with binoculars.
February 2, Groundhog Day comes, with the fun tradition of groundhog Punxsutawmey (yes, I had to look up the spelling on that one) Phil emerging, to either see his shadow, meaning six more weeks of winter, or not seeing the shadow, supposedly meaning an earlier spring. Other celebrations, such as Candelmas in Germany herald the coming spring. Early February is also the midpoint between the winter solstice, our beginning of winter, and the vernal equinox, the start of our spring. It has historically been a time when people in the northern hemisphere begin to anticipate spring and warmer weather.
The bright outer planets are fading in February. Saturn is no longer in the evening sky, and both Jupiter and Mars are growing lower in the southwestern sky. Venus, however, shines bright during February evenings. Look for it low in the west after sunset. It will not be hard to miss, as it will be brighter than anything in the night sky except for the Moon.
Jupiter, the Moon, and Venus will make for a stunning sight on February 22, when all three are nestled together in the southwestern sky after sunset. Jupiter will lie just to the right of the very thin crescent Moon, with bright Venus a short distance below those two, closer to the horizon. Venus and Jupiter are approaching each other during the month, as they appear to us. They will have a very close conjunction on March 1 – more about that next month!
February’s full Moon will occur early in the month, on the 5th. New Moon will be on February 19. On the 26th of the month, the first-quarter Moon will be right between two bright star clusters. To the right of the Moon will be the familiar Pleiades cluster, also sometimes called the “Seven Sisters”. To the left of the Moon will be the cluster Hyades, including the bright star Aldebaran, one of the winter stars I mentioned last month. A pair of binoculars are a perfect instrument for checking out the clusters!
Those bright winter constellations still rule the night sky in February, but another sign of seasonal change is the appearance of the spring constellation Leo, now above the eastern horizon by 8pm. Look for the “head” of Leo, with the bright star Regulus (22nd brightest star in the sky) just below the head. It appears like a sickle, or a backwards question mark, with Regulus at the base. In the west, Pegasus the winged horse, Pisces the fish, and Cetus the whale are all sinking toward the horizon. Ursa major and the Big Dipper are to the right of Polaris in the northern sky, with the handle of the dipper pointing down toward the horizon. The ever-changing views of the night sky are something to marvel, at any time of the year. Check them out on those rare occurrences when February skies are clear!
What’s in the Sky
Happy New Year!
2023 begins. Another rotation of the Earth around the Sun will yield the usual starry treasures in the night sky, including dazzling stars, bright planets, meteor showers, and this year another partial solar eclipse in October (more on that in later months). Make sure that viewing the night skies are on your recreation list for 2023!
January may be cold, but it presents some great opportunities for stargazing when the skies clear. Have you ever thought that winter skies seem the darkest, with the stars shining brighter than in summer nights? There is some truth to that. First of all, January’s night skies are dominated by some very bright stars. Our evening sky includes Sirius, the brightest star in the sky (other than the Sun of course); Capella, #6; Rigel, #7, Procyon, #8, Betelgeuse, #10; Aldebaran, #14 and the twins Pollux, #17 and Castor, #24. But that is not the only factor. Also, in winter evenings we are looking toward the outer extent of our galaxy, whereas in summer evenings we are looking toward the more star-dense parts of the galaxy. The collective light from millions of stars in summer nights lends a bit less contrast, with the background not quite as black.
Those bright stars will have a planetary companion again in January, the planet Mars. While the red planet is now pulling away from us, and growing less bright, it will still outshine all of the stars except for Sirius.
Mars will not be the only visible planet in the evening sky. Jupiter still shines bright, now low in the west. Look for a close encounter with the crescent Moon on the evening of January 25.
Saturn will still be in the evening sky, but very low in the west before sunset. Bright Venus re-enters the evening sky this month, and will have a close encounter with Saturn on the 22nd of the month. Look for the two planets, very low on the western horizon, just after sunset. If you have a good view of the horizon, and a pair of binoculars, you may be able to detect the very thin crescent Moon just below the planets. January 23 and 24 will also have nice views of the two planets, quite close to each other, plus the now more easily visible crescent Moon, higher in the western sky.
January’s full Moon comes on the 6th, with new Moon following on the 21st. On the 30th, the Moon and Mars will be very close together, separated by less than the diameter of the Moon as we see it in the sky. Look for it at about 8 or 9pm if skies are clear.
The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks just after New Year, on the 3rd and 4th. The bright Moon will wash out all but the brighter meteors around that peak. The name Quadrantid comes from the old name for the Constellation Bootes, once called Quadrans muralis.
Enjoy January skies!
What’s in the Sky
Welcome to December, our last month of the year, and the start of winter. The winter solstice will occur on December 21. On that day we’ll have about 8 hours and 35 minutes of sunlight. Sunrise will be at about 7:45AM, with sunset following at 4:23PM. Even though it is the shortest day of the year, the solstice does not have the earliest sunset – that came on December 10. And it also does not have the latest sunrise, that will come on January 2, 2023. Why? Since the Earth’s orbit is slightly elliptical, our day length varies a bit throughout the year. We standardize our time, but the Sun’s position varies from that a bit.
December is the best month for Mars. The red planet will be closest to us on December 8, and will be bright and prominent throughout the month. Look in the eastern sky, and it will be unmistakable, due to its red color. Brave a few minutes on cold December nights and take a look at Mars, in our eastern evening sky. If you look close, you may notice that it moves compared to the background stars. Compare with the picture included with this article. As the planets orbit the Sun, they move in relation to the stars. Early people saw the planets as the stars that wandered across the sky. The Greek root of the word planet is plantes, meaning “wanderer”.
Jupiter and Saturn remain in our evening sky in December, although Saturn is getting pretty low in the west. By the end of the month, Saturn will set at about 8pm. Look for Saturn low in the west-southwest. Don’t confuse it with Altair, an almost equally bright star to the right of Saturn, or Fomalhaut, to Saturn’s left in the south-southwest. Jupiter, still the brightest object in the night sky (except for the moon of course), shines high in the southwestern evening sky.
Our December Moon is full on December 7, and new on the 23rd. At the start of the month, the first-quarter Moon will be just to the left of Jupiter, which should make for a really nice view. On the 8th, the almost full Moon will lie just to the left of Mars. Early morning viewers can find the waning crescent Moon just above the bright star Spica on the 18th, in the southeastern morning sky. If you have a good view of the southwestern horizon, the thin crescent Moon will join Venus and Mercury, hugging the horizon just after sunset on Christmas eve. And on the 26th, the crescent Moon should make for a very pretty view, when located just to the left of Saturn.
The bright winter constellations Orion, Taurus, Gemini, and Auriga are all above the eastern horizon on December evenings. Mars is right in the mix, located in Taurus. In those constellations you can find Capella, the 6th brightest star in the sky, in Auriga; Rigel (#7) and Betelgeuse (#10) are both in Orion; Aldebaran (#14) is the bull’s red “eye” in Taurus, and the twins Pollux (#17) and Castor (#24) are in Gemini. By 10pm, or 8pm late in the month, they are joined by Sirius (#1) and Procyon (#8) as they clear the horizon.
A bit of history in December – 50 years ago, on December 7, 1972, the last Apollo mission Apoll0 17 blasted off for the Moon. Astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt landed on the Moon on December 11. At the time, I doubt many would have thought it would be over 50 years before humans returned to the Moon. The November launch of the Artemis 1, the unmanned first test for the new spacecraft planned for a Moon landing in a few years, should end that long drought. As I write this, Artemis 1 is approaching the Moon. Watch online for video and pictures of the mission.
Step outside for a few moments on a clear night and enjoy the December skies!
What’s in the Sky
Skies are usually quite cloudy in November, but we can hope for some clear weather on November 8. On that date, early in the morning, we will be greeted with a total lunar eclipse. It will be total in the western United States, but only partial in the eastern US.
The eclipse begins at about midnight on the 7th, but you won’t be able to see much then. The early part of the eclipse, the penumbra, is barely noticeable. At a bit after 1am, the full shadow of the Earth begins to creep across the surface of the Moon. By about 2:15 am, the Moon should be fully eclipsed, and will appear a deep reddish color. The Moon will appear fully eclipsed until about 3:50am, then will slowly brighten. The entire eclipse will be over by about 6am. Best viewing, alas, will be from about 2am to 4am. After 4am, the eclipse will be barely noticeable.
If skies are clear, and you can stay awake (or get up early), give it a look. This will be our last full lunar eclipse until 2025. There will be partial eclipses in 2024, but the next full lunar eclipse will not be until March 14, 2025.
November will be another good month to view the bright planets Jupiter and Saturn, and this month Mars will join the party. At the start of November, the red planet will rise at about 8:30pm. By the end of the month Mars will be high in the eastern sky, located in the constellation Taurus. November will be the last good month for viewing Saturn in the evening sky. By the end of the month the ringed planet will set by about 10pm.
Those three planets, along with the first quarter Moon, will make for a nice view on November 1. At 9pm, with a good view of the southern and eastern sky, you will be able to see Mars low in the east and Jupiter due south. In the southeast, the Moon will be just to the left of Saturn.
A couple of nights later, on November 4, the almost full Moon will be just to the left of Jupiter. On the 10th, the waning gibbous Moon will be just to the right of Mars. November’s full Moon will be on the 8th, with new Moon following on the 23rd.
A nice “signpost” in the November easters sky is the bright star cluster, the Pleiades. Look for it in the eastern sky, above and to the right of Mars, and right above the bright star Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus, the Bull. The Pleiades, also known as the “Seven sisters” is a cluster of bright, blue-white stars, and the brightest star cluster in our sky. It is visible to the naked eye, and is a beautiful sight in a pair of binoculars. To the left of the Pleiades, find the bright star Capella, the sixth brightest star in our night sky. Below the Pleiades and Taurus, find the rising constellation Orion. As many know, the Pleiades is known as Subaru in Japan, and the emblem of the Subaru automobile is a representation of the star cluster.
Remember to set your clocks back an hour (“fall back”) on Sunday, November 6, as we revert to Pacific Standard Time. Enjoy November’s skies!
What’s in the Sky
Welcome to October, our first full month of Autumn. We’re still in daylight savings time, but the seasonal change is apparent in the change of daylength. At the start of October, sunrise is just after 7am, and sunset is at about 6:45pm. By Halloween, sunrise will back off to about 7:45am, and sunset will be a few minutes before 6pm. Shorter days in October, but earlier times for viewing the night skies.
Jupiter and Saturn remain prominent in our southern evening sky in October. Jupiter will be hard to mistake, the brightest “star” in the southern sky, situated in the faint constellation Pisces, one of the 12 Zodiac constellations. Jupiter is beginning to pull away from Earth, but is still close. And, the solar system’s giant will be in the best position for evening viewing in October. It will be pretty much due south during the month, and at its highest point in the sky in October evenings. Saturn is to the right of Jupiter, and a bit lower in the sky. Saturn made its closest approach to us this year on September 26. While not as bright as Jupiter, Saturn will outshine nearby stars and should be easy to pick out. Use the picture with this article to locate the two bright planets.
Venus and Mercury are in October’s morning sky. Venus is so close to the Sun in our sky that it is very difficult to see. Look for before sunrise, early in the month. Mercury is visible before sunrise in the first half of October, and will be highest in the sky on about October 7.
A great way to view Jupiter and Saturn is via a visit to the Goldendale Observatory. In October, the Observatory shifts to winter hours, and is open Friday through Sunday, 2-4pm (Solar program) and 7-10pm. Drop-in visits by groups of 5 or smaller are welcome, but larger groups should provide advanced notice via booking on the Park’s web page at https://www.goldendaleobservatory.com/autumnwinter.html. A Washington State Park Discovery pass is required for parking. Check out the “visit” link on the web page for more information.
The red planet Mars makes its return to the evening sky in October. At the start of the month, Mars will appear above the northeastern horizon at about 10pm. By the end of the month, it will be well above the horizon, located in the constellation Taurus, the bull. Mars will make its closest approach to us in early December. The red planet will be something to look forward to when skies clear in cold winter months!
At the start of October, we’ll have a nice, first-quarter Moon in the evening sky. The Moon will be low in the sky, with the constellation Sagittarius in the background. Full Moon will occur on October 9, with new Moon following on the 25th. The Moon will be near Jupiter on the 7th and 8th. The Moon will be below and to the left of Saturn on Oct. 5, and will be below and to the right of Saturn at the end of the month on Halloween. The Moon will also visit the neighborhood of Mars on October 14 – the waning gibbous Moon will be just to the left of the red planet, low in the east at 10pm.
The constellations we see in the sky continue to change with the seasons. In October, Perseus, Auriga, and Taurus make their appearance on the eastern horizon, along with the star cluster Pleiades.
By the end of the month, Orion and Gemini will be above the eastern horizon by 11pm. Cygnus the swan is in the southwest, and Sagittarius is sinking below the horizon.
Enjoy October’s skies!
What’s in the Sky
September already is here, the month we have the autumnal equinox and the beginning of fall. September is a great stargazing month, and skies are often clear, and darkness comes earlier. Sunset comes at about 7:45pm on Sept. 1, and drops back to about 6:45pm.
September begins with a beautiful crescent Moon in the southwestern evening sky, in the constellation Libra. By the 3rd of the month, the now first-quarter Moon will be located low in the southern sky, in the constellation Scorpius. Following the Moon’s position relative to the background stars, you can see that the Moon moves from west to east as it orbits the Earth. On the 7th and 8th of the month, the now almost full Moon will be near Jupiter in the southeast. On the 10th and 11th, the Moon will visit be near bright Jupiter, in the southwest. On the 17th, if you are an early riser, look for the third-quarter Moon just to the left of the planet Mars in the morning sky. Full Moon occurs on September 10, with new Moon following on the 25th.
The bright planets Saturn and Jupiter are prominent in September. Jupiter makes its closest approach to Earth for the year on September 26. Saturn was closest last month, but viewing Saturn in September is even better, as the ringed planet rises earlier, and is higher in the southern sky earlier in the evening. Saturn’s rings can be seen even with a small telescope – give it a try if you have one.
Jupiter is much brighter than Saturn, and will be quite prominent as the brightest “star” in the southeastern sky in September. Point a small telescope, or even a good pair of 10x binoculars toward Jupiter, and you should be able to make out the small circular disc of the planet. You should also be able to see four small “stars” lined up along Jupiter’s equator. They are the planet’s 4 largest Moons, Io, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede. They are easy to see because they are large. Ganymede is the solar system’s largest moon, being even larger in diameter than the planet Mercury. Io and Callisto are larger than Earth’s moon, with Europa being slightly smaller.
A fun thing to observe is the movement of Jupiter’s moons from night to night. They orbit quite quickly, and you can see them change position from day to day. Galileo observed this with the newly-invented telescope in 1610, causing quite a stir at a time when people thought everything revolved around the Earth! You can replicate Galileo’s discovery quite easily. Take a look at the picture included with this article, showing the moon positions on September 19 and 20.
Fall constellations are making their presence in the September sky. Pegasus, with its “great square” of equally bright stars, is right above Jupiter in the eastern evening sky. Andromeda, to the left of Pegasus, includes the Andromeda galaxy, faintly visible to the naked eye on dark, moonless nights. In the north, Ursa major’s Big Dipper is low in the northeast. Cassiopeia lies in the northeast. Auriga the charioteer is becoming visible low in the northeast. Look for a bright star, Capella, low in the northeast after sunset. Capella is the 6th brightest star in our night sky.
Evenings in later September also provide opportunities to view the International Space Station as it zooms overhead. Go to Heavens-Above (www.heavens-above.com), enter your location information, and click on “ISS” for times when the Station is visible.
A great way to view the bright planets this fall is to visit the Goldendale Observatory. The much-improved facility features great programs and wonderful views through its 24.5-inch telescope. Check out the Observatory’s web page at https://www.goldendaleobservatory.com/ for more information. If you are interested in supporting the unique State Park, as well as other Klickitat County State Parks, join me with the Friends of Gorge Area Parks, more information at https://www.4gorgeparks.org/
Enjoy September’s skies!
What’s in the Sky
August already, our last full month of summer, how did that happen so fast?
If you are ready to view some night skies, August is a great month. Weather is usually clear, and dark skies are starting to come earlier. Plus, we greet Jupiter and Saturn as they move into the evening sky.
The beautiful ringed planet Saturn will make its closest approach to us this year on August 14. At that time the Earth will be right “between” the Sun and Saturn. Saturn will rise at sunset, and set at sunrise. After the 14th, Saturn will pull away from us, but not by much in the next month or so. And, it will rise earlier each night, and be higher in the sky during evening hours. A great time to view the rings if you have not seen them.
2022 will be a good year to view Saturn’s rings, as they won’t be as prominent in the next few years. As Saturn makes its 29-year orbit around the Sun, our view of the rings changes from year to year. Currently the rings are “tilted”, from our perspective, so that we can see them well. In a couple of years, the plane of the rings will be in our line of sight, and we’ll only see a thin line (the rings are not very thick). Check out the picture with this column to get the idea.
Giant Jupiter is beginning to make its presence in August’s evening sky as well. At the start of the month Jupiter will rise at about 11pm. On the 14th, when Saturn is at opposition, Jupiter will be easy to find, located just to the left of the waxing gibbous Moon. Jupiter will make its closest approach to us in September.
The Perseid meteor shower will peak on August 11 and 12. Unfortunately, we’ll have a very bright Moon this year, which will “wash out” many of the meteors.
August’s full Moon will occur on the 11th, right before the peak of the Perseid Meteor shower. New Moon will be on August 27. On the 3rd, you’ll find the Moon just above the bright star Spica, in the constellation Virgo. On the 6th, the waxing gibbous Moon will be low in the south, in the constellation Scorpius, and will be in Sagittarius on the 7th and 8th. On the 15th, you’ll find the Moon just below Jupiter in the late evening or early morning sky. The morning of the 19th should present a very neat view, with the third-quarter Moon just above Mars, and just below the star cluster Pleiades. On the morning of the 23rd, the thin, waning crescent will be just to the right of the Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux.
August is a great time to view the Milky Way, especially when the Moon is out of the evening sky, later in the month. If you have a good view of the southern sky, you’ll notice that the Milky Way is much brighter in that area. You are looking toward the center of our galaxy, and thus seeing the cumulative light from many more stars. Notice the “darker” areas within the bright milky way, dust lanes where interstellar dust blocks our view. You can follow the arc of the Milky Way up through Aquila and Cygnus, Cassiopeia, and finally Perseus in the north. Find a nice, dark site on a clear evening, and enjoy the view!
What’s in the Sky
July is here already. It is hard to believe we are entering the second half of the year!
We have moved past the summer solstice, and days are now getting shorter – and nights longer. Not by much though; even at the end of July, we’ll see the Sun rising at about 5:45am, and not setting until after 8:30pm. With the night sky coming a bit earlier, it is more fun for stargazing – provided we get some clear weather!
As with June, the bright planets Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn remain in the early morning sky. Early in the month they continue to present an impressive lineup, with Saturn in the south, Jupiter and Mars in the southeast, and Venus low in the east-northeast. The planets will soon be moving into the evening sky however. Saturn will begin to peek over the eastern horizon after 11pm, after the middle of July. If you are up late, look for it in the east.
The Moon will join the morning planetary lineup from about the 15th, when it is near Saturn, to the 26th, when it is near Venus.
July is another month with a “supermoon”, when the Moon is slightly closer to Earth than average. July’s full Moon will be the closest, at about 221,000 miles (on average the Moon is about 239,000 miles). The full Moon comes on July 13. July’s new Moon follows on the 28th.
Summer constellations are becoming more prominent in the eastern evening sky in July. Cygnus the Swan, often called the Northern Cross, is now high in the eastern sky. Vega, the prominent star in the constellation Lyra, lies almost directly overhead. Pegasus, the winged horse, is now above the eastern horizon.
An interesting little constellation that is quite noticeable is Delphinus, the dolphin. One of the smallest constellations, Delphinus does look somewhat like its namesake, with a bit of imagination. The constellation includes a “diamond” shape of 4 relatively bright stars, and a couple more that make up a “tail”. Where to find it? Look high in the eastern evening sky for the bright star Vega, mentioned last month. Below and to the left of Vega, find the bright star Deneb, the head of Cygnus the Swan. Slightly below and to the right of Deneb, look for bright Altair, the brightest star in the constellation Aquila. If you locate these three, you have found the “summer triangle”.
Delphinus lies to the left of and slightly below Altair, below Vega, and to the right and below Deneb. See if you can locate the little “diamond” shape. Use the drawing with this article as a guide.
As the days warm and skies clear, get out and enjoy July’s night skies!
What’s in the Sky
Welcome to June, the month of the summer solstice. On June 21, our Sun will be at its highest point in our sky, about 67 degrees above the southern horizon. If you were on the Tropic of Cancer, the Sun would be pretty much directly overhead. We will be at about our maximum day length, with the Sun rising at about 5:15am, and setting at about 9pm. That gives us about 15 hours and 45 minutes of daylight. Viewing the night skies requires you to stay up a bit late (or get up early), and there are less than 3 hours of total darkness, outside of twilight hours.
We will have the first of three consecutive “supermoons” in June, where our Moon is closer than average to Earth. The Moon will be about 22349 miles from Earth, close to the minimum distance of about 225,000 miles. On average, the Moon is about 238,900 miles. The full Moon will appear a bit larger and brighter than usual.
If you are an early riser, June presents the opportunity to see all of the naked-eye visible planets in the early morning hours. Mid and late June works the best, as Mercury will be higher in the sky before the Sun rises. The Moon joins the party in late June. Check out the southeastern sky on June 23 to see the crescent Moon in line with Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The bright planets will still be absent from the evening sky, so viewing them will be for early risers.
June begins with a thin crescent Moon low in the west after sunset, below the twin stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux. On the 2nd, the Moon will be just to the left of these two stars. On the 5th the Moon will lie in the constellation Leo the Lion. The almost full Moon will lie near the bright star Antares on the 12th. The Moon will move along the mentioned line of planets, below Jupiter on the 21st, to the right of Mars on the 22nd, and to the left of Venus on the 26th.
The spring constellations Leo and Virgo are sinking into the west in June, as we move in our orbit around the Sun. In the eastern evening sky, Cygnus the Swan is rising, along with the summer Milky Way. A couple of bright stars can serve as “beacons” to help you navigate the eastern and southern sky in June. Vega, the 5th brightest star on our sky, will be in the east. Arcturus, slightly brighter, will be in the south. Vega is the brightest star in the little constellation Lyra, and Arcturus lies at the base of the dim constellation Bootes. Between Vega and Arcturus lies the constellation Hercules, and the little half-circle of the constellation Corona Borealis.
Looking north, you may notice the “W” shape of Cassiopeia, below the north star Polaris, and its constellation Ursa Minor. To the left of Polaris, when facing north, you’ll find the familiar Big Dipper in the constellation Ursa Major. These constellations are “circumpolar” at our latitude, meaning they never set.
Are you interested in the night sky, and maybe familiar with the Goldendale Observatory? Or maybe you enjoy the explosion of wildflowers on the Columbia Hills State Park? A new group, supporting the Observatory and other Washington State Parks in the area (Columbia Hills, Maryhill, Brooks Memorial) may be of interest to you. Check it out at the Friends of Gorge Area Parks webpage, at https://www.4gorgeparks.org/
Enjoy June’s night skies!
What’s in the Sky
Welcome to May. The big event in our May night sky will occur on the 15th, when we will have a full Lunar Eclipse. Our bright planets remain mostly in the morning sky, and nights get shorter as we near the summer solstice. But nights will be warmer, and May usually presents more clear skies than earlier in spring. Get outside and take a look when skies are clear!
On May 15, our Moon will rise at about 8:30pm, in the southeast. It will have a distinctly reddish color, much subdued compared to the normal full Moon. It will already be fully eclipsed. The Earth will be immediately between the Sun and the Moon, blocking light from reaching our natural satellite. Some of the light passes through our atmosphere, is refracted, and bathes the Moon in a reddish glow. Long wavelength light, on the red end of the spectrum, is scattered less by our atmosphere and thus mostly reddish light illuminates the Moon, much as we encounter reddish sunsets and sunrises here on Earth. The Moon will remain fully eclipsed until about 10pm, and then will be in partial eclipse, slowly brightening as the Earth’s shadow creeps across the lunar surface. The eclipse will end at about 11:30pm.
If you watch the partial eclipse state, after 10pm, you may notice that the Earth’s shadow is curved as it appears on the Moon’ surface. You can see that in photos, such as the 2004 Lunar Eclipse pictures that accompany this article. The Greek astronomer Aristarchus, who lived between 310 and 230 BC, observed this and concluded that the Earth is round, at a time when many felt that the Earth was flat. He was also able to determine the relative sizes of the Earth and Moon, and that the Sun was much larger and farther away from us than the Moon.
Our bright planets remain in the morning sky in May. The one exception is Mercury, which will be visible low in the west after sunset. Look for it just to the left of the bright star cluster Pleiades on May 1.
Venus, Jupiter, Mars and Saturn will all be low in the southeastern morning sky. On May 29, look for a conjunction, a close apparent approach, between Jupiter and Mars. They will appear only about ½ degree apart in the sky. That’s about the width of the Moon in our sky, pretty close together. Look for them at 5am or a bit earlier, before the rising Sun lightens the sky too much.
In addition to the eclipse, it can be fun to follow the Moon as it marches across the sky, visiting different stars, constellations, and the planets. On May 5, you’ll find the thin crescent Moon low in the west, just below the twin stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux. To the Moon’s right will be the bright star Capella, in the constellation Auriga. On the 9th, the first quarter Moon will lie in the constellation Leo. It will then pass through Virgo, will lie in Libra during the eclipse, Scorpius on the 17th, and in Sagittarius on the 18th and 19th, visible in early morning. It will then join the line of bright planets in the morning sky.
Summer constellations are beginning to peek over the eastern horizon in May. Look for Cygnus the Swan to be low in the east at 10pm. To its right, find the bright star Vega, in the small constellation Lyra. The Big Dipper, in the constellation Ursa Major, now lies high overhead. Gemini and Auriga are now low in the west, and Orion, the prominent constellation in the winter sky, has pretty much disappeared from view, to return in fall.
On April 7, a celebration of the improved Goldendale Observatory was held, with Washington Governor Jay Inslee in attendance. This summer will be a great time to visit the unique Washington State Park, located on Observatory Hill in Goldendale. In addition, a volunteer support group has been formed, assisting the Observatory and other Washington State Parks in the Goldendale Vicinity. If the group sounds of interest to you, check out the web page at 4gorgeparks.org
Enjoy May’s night skies!
STAGES OF A LUNAR ECLIPSE: BEFORE--TOTAL--ENDING
What’s in the Sky
April has arrived, with (somewhat) warmer temperatures and usually a few more clear skies. Our days are definitely getting longer, and our nights shorter. At the start of April, we’ll have about 12 hours and 49 minutes of daylight. By the end of the month, that will stretch to about 14 hours and 19 minutes of daylight, a gain of an hour and 30 minutes during the month. Of course, that means shorter nights for stargazing, but with more comfortable temperatures.
The bright planets remain in the morning sky. And they are worth a look, especially at both the start of the month, and the end of the month. On April 1, look for Venus, Saturn, and Mars very close to each other in the east-southeastern sky, before sunrise. Venus will be easy to pick out, easily the brightest star-like object in the sky. About 3 degrees to the right of Venus will be Saturn, and about another 3 degrees to the right of Saturn will be Mars. All three will be brighter than nearby stars, so easy to pick out. They will be about 10 degrees above the horizon at about 6am. A good gauge of those distances is your outstretched arm. Your closed fist covers about 10 degrees. Your three middle fingers, held together, covers about 5 degrees. 6am or a bit later will be a good time to look. They will grow higher in the sky, but the rising Sun will soon obliterate them from view (sunrise is about 6:45M).
By April 4 and 5, Saturn and Mars will grow very close together as we see them, called a conjunction. They will only be about ½ degree apart, less than the width of your little finger at arm’s length. As the month goes on, the apparent distances between them will grow larger, and Jupiter will “join” them, to the left of Venus. By April 20, they should make a nice line in the morning sky, with Jupiter on the left, then Venus, then Mars, and finally Saturn. The waning crescent Moon will join them, below the planets on April 25 and 26.
Another conjunction comes at the end of the month, when Jupiter and Venus join each other, again about ½ a degree apart. Hopefully we will have clear skies for these events!
The Moon begins April just after its “new” stage, and will be full on the 16th. April’s new Moon will occur on the last day of the month. On April 4, look for the crescent Moon just below the star cluster Pleiades, low in the west after sunset. On the 8th, the Moon will be just below the Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux. On the 9th, the Moon will be just to the left of those stars. On the 11th and 12th, the Moon will be in the constellation Leo. On Tax Day, the 15th, you’ll find the almost full Moon just below the bright star Spica, in the constellation Virgo.
More spring constellations are beginning to enter the evening sky in April. Virgo and Corvus are above the eastern horizon by 9pm. By mid-month, Hercules, Bootes, Virgo, and Corona Borealis, the northern crown, will be above the horizon. See if you can locate them on a nice spring evening.
Enjoy April’s night skies!
What’s in the Sky
Welcome to March, when spring arrives, and we move back to daylight savings time. Remember to set your clocks ahead (“spring ahead”) on Sunday, March 13.
The first day of Spring, the Vernal Equinox, comes on Sunday, March 20. On that day, the Sun will be directly over the equator, and our day and night lengths will be about equal. It will not be exactly equal though. Our atmosphere bends (refracts) the sunlight somewhat, and we actually see the Sun for a few minutes after it has actually set in the evening. The same occurs in the morning, we see the Sun shortly before it actually rises. So, we get a few more minutes of sunshine. I doubt many complain!
If you read my column last month, you’ll recall that we did not have a new Moon in February, a rarity that is possible because our shortest month has fewer days than a full lunar cycle (about 29.5 day). And because of that, we’ll have two new Moons in March, one on the 2nd, and one on the 31st. The second new Moon is called a Black Moon. But it will be limited to the west coast of the continental US. The precise time of new Moon on the 31st will be about 11:30pm. For those who are east of us, that new Moon will occur early on April 1. No fooling!
Jupiter, the last of the bright planets that has been in our evening sky, slips past the Sun in March and enters the morning sky, joining Venus, Mars, Saturn and Mercury. Jupiter and Mercury will be difficult to see in March, as they will be very close to the Sun in our sky. Venus, Mars, and Saturn will be close together later in the month. Look for them to form a nice triangle on March 24, low in the southeast before sunrise. Look at about 6:00 to 6:30am. Locate bright Venus, and look for Mars to the right of Venus, and Saturn below Venus.
The constellations continue to change in the evening sky, as the Earth rotates the Sun. By 9pm on March evenings, Perseus is disappearing in the west, and bright Orion is sinking low in the southwestern sky. Ursa Major and the Big Dipper ride high overhead. In the east, spring constellations Leo, Virgo, and Bootes are now above the horizon.
An interesting star to observe is Mizar, in the Big Dipper. The Dipper will be located high up in the eastern sky in March, with the “handle” facing down toward the horizon. There are three bright stars in the handle, below the “cup” of the dipper. The closest star to the cup is Alioth, and the farthest from the cup, at the end of the handle, is Alkaid. Mizar is between these two. Use the picture to locate Mizar.
Give Mizar a close look. Do you see another, dimmer star, very close to Mizar? That star is Alcor. Spotting Alcor is a test of good eyesight!
Train a pair of binoculars on the duo, and you’ll clearly see the separation. There definitely are two stars, where you casually see only one.
With even a small telescope, you’ll notice something else. Mizar itself is two stars, a “binary” system of two stars orbiting each other. A telescope allows you to “split” the two, whereas your naked eye sees one point of light.
But there is more! as the late-night TV ads often say. While they cannot be seen with a telescope, spectroscopic telescopes have observed that both of the components of Mizar are also binaries. And, Alcor has been found to be a binary as well. So, when you look up at that star in the handle of the Big Dipper, you are actually seeing six stars!
Enjoy the night skies of March!